Previous ChapterContentsNext Chapter

The Jovial Ghosts

The Misadventures of Topper


Thorne Smith


Antics of a Hat Stand

THE Topper's house was not one of mirth. Great quantities of gloom had descended upon the place. Women had hastened to Mrs. Topper's side as if in the hour of her bereavement. They sat in subdued rooms and conversed in subdued voices. Mr. Topper came to regard himself as a corpse, without, however, enjoying a corpse's immunity to its surroundings. At any moment he expected Mrs. Topper to place candles round him. He had been requested to withdraw from the Town Council and the honorary residue of the now professionally organised fire brigade. Why a person had to be moral in order to be useful at a fire was difficult for Mr. Topper to understand. Nevertheless, he sent in his resignation and felt better about it. He was now officially divorced from white duck trousers. That was something to cling to in the ruins.

Twenty-four hours after his release from durance the craving for a smoke had driven him into town. On that trip he had purchased enough cigars to relieve himself of all further necessity of appearing again in public. Topper had only a hazy idea about fallen women, but he imagined he felt very much as they did when adversity had forced them to return to their home towns. Topper had lost everything but his money, and because that still remained he was not stoned. He was still a solid man, but terribly soiled. He read about himself in the local newspaper and stopped reading almost immediately. Mrs. Topper displayed no such delicacy. The paper was seldom out of her hands. Topper, observing her absorbed expression, wondered what pleasure she could be deriving from poring over such morbid stuff. Mrs. Topper was deriving a lot of pleasure. Seeing her husband's crimes in print gave her a feeling of security. There could now be no doubt about it. The story was down in black and white. Mr. Topper could not deny it. She was vexed with the reporters, however. They had used altogether too much literary restraint. Now if she had been writing the report—headlines flashed through her mind. It was well for Topper that he could not read them.

Three days had elapsed since Mr. Topper's arrest. Three days passed by him for the most part in the backyard. Whenever sympathetic callers arrived Mr. Topper disappeared. He feared that the women might ask his wife for the privilege of viewing the remains. For this reason he quietly removed himself and his bruises to the backyard. To this retreat Scollops followed him. She was waiting impatiently to resume the repose that had been so rudely interrupted by his unwarranted absence from the house. The man must sit down some time. This tragic stalking about was all very well for a while, but on the other hand something was due to a cat, especially such a cat as Scollops. There was little comfort in a peripatetic couch. If Topper wanted to think and be gloomy let him do so in a stationary position. But why think? Sleep was much more vital. There were a few slight irregularities in her own life. Scollops remembered, not without pride, a certain alienation affair in which she had become involved, but she had no intention of letting the memory make her haggard. Several times she had honestly tried to think about the affair, to figure out if in any way she had justified various backyard references, but the effort had made her drowsy. Why was not this man affected in the same manner? Human beings placed too great importance on the game of morals. That was why they were constantly breaking the rules. They really did not want to play and yet they insisted on giving the appearance of playing. So Scollops waited while Topper walked. Then Topper sat and Scollops slept. And in the darkened house Mrs. Topper delicately arched her eyebrows and was happy, quite, quite happy in a sane and refined manner.

After three days of morbid seclusion Mr. Topper came to a decision. His secret life was developing, growing more complex. When he came to the decision he was sitting on the lawn roller because it had been previously warmed by the sun. And what made him come to a decision arose from a sudden and upsetting realisation that at heart he felt neither grieved nor chastened by anything that had come to pass. He found himself actually gloating over his night in the lock-up—what little he could remember of it. He relished his memory of the old abandoned inn tucked away among the trees. He felt with pleasure that he had done some fairly splendid dancing and he was sure that for the first time in his life he had sung without constraint and fought without fear. Sitting there on the lawn roller, he was surprised to find that each little memory brought him some satisfaction and no regret, and as the indirect rays of the sun sent courage through his spinal column he deliberately denounced the town and all its works in terms both round and rough. His whole past life had been modelled on false standards which would have to be adjusted at once. There was only one way to accomplish this. Mr. Topper's fingers abstractly touched one of Scollops' ears and Scollops with equal abstractness scratched one of Mr. Topper's fingers. But Topper disregarded the sleepy rebuke of his cat. He was going away. He was going quite far away. That was Mr. Topper's decision. He would drive himself to some great distance from the town and his wife and her friends. Before he officially proclaimed the new order of things he must first be alone. He had to think a little. That was quite important. He wondered now how he had ever got along so far with so little thought. He became quite elated about his brain. It was like a new toy to him. He had always believed that it had been providentially arranged for the purpose of making money, acquiring possession and paying for legs of lamb. He found that his brain was quite playful, that it broke rules and was indifferent, that it entertained the most disreputable thoughts without becoming panic-stricken. Mr. Topper felt like dancing, but he restrained this inclination. He realised that if Mrs. Topper saw him making movements of joy she would immediately call in another mourner for a whispered conversation. And Topper felt so liberated that he feared he might assault the next woman who heaved a sigh in his house.

So instead of dancing he buried his head in his hands and held on to himself. It was silly about his eyes. He did not feel at all like crying. Yet his face was growing wet.

The next day Mr. Topper went to the city. To show his indifference to public opinion he took the usual morning train. His appearance at first caused the respectful silence usually accorded to criminals in transit to the place of incarceration. As he walked down the platform he felt that life had not been lived in vain. He enjoyed the situation. Men who had once greeted him with respect now slapped him on the back with hands that were moist with condescension. Friends who had hitherto received him warmly nodded thoughtfully in his direction and resumed their conversation. Two representatives of civic virtue were honest enough to ignore his presence. Harris Stevens, however, was not to be downed. On seeing Topper he threw himself headlong into the rôle of official protector. Stevens' mind was so tolerant that he could have attended a lynching every day without becoming critical. He thrust his arm through Mr. Topper's and led him up to a group of mutual friends.

"If I were handcuffed to him," thought Mr. Topper, "his happiness would be complete."

Nevertheless Topper made no protest. He was still enjoying the situation.

"Look out, boys!" cried the jovial Stevens, "he's dangerous. Wild women and everything. What do you think of our Cosmo now?"

Of course the assembled gentlemen hardly said exactly what they thought of their Cosmo now, but to a man they all displayed a glittering interest in the mysterious and therefore immoral woman in the case. Several travellers of the more serious and orderly type even went so far as to draw Mr. Topper aside and intimate roguishly that they would appreciate his confiding absolutely in them. Mr. Topper understood all too well and gave each inquirer a different name and address. He was thanked by each, nudged playfully in the ribs, and assured that everything would be done on the quiet.

"What vile devils they are!" thought Mr. Topper as he smiled knowingly into their eyes, already touched with the fever of the hunt.

His trip to the city that morning provided him with much food for thought, each morsel of which was more unpalatable than the last.

The atmosphere was clearer at the office. News of Mr. Topper's evil ways had not entered there. Boys were answering bells, girls were serving the files and customers were beginning to transact business.

"To what end all this?" speculated Mr. Topper, making his way to his desk and hanging his hat and stick on a near-by stand. From his position on the platform he could look down over the activity taking place on the bank's vast floor. Like a lesser god he observed with preoccupied eyes the ordered movement of those below him. What he saw neither pleased Mr. Topper nor made him feel particularly proud of his elevated place in this little world. Mr. Topper had already progressed too far for that, but the quiet briskness of the bank, the crisp little people coming and going on sure feet beneath the vast dome of the place, and the massive splendour of the institution's architecture gave him a feeling of permanence. Men and women were engaged in earning a living there. They were paying strict attention to their own affairs. Round him on the platform his brother officers were busy with callers and correspondence. Here Mr. Topper felt safe from the oily eyes of his friends. He drew a sigh of relief and touched a bell. Miss Johnson appeared with his letters and he thanked her with elaborate politeness. His secretary was a middle-aged woman who valiantly strove to draw attention from that depressing fact by decorating various parts of her body with the tender ribbons of infancy. Mr. Topper's attention was not so easily misdirected, but nevertheless he was fond of Miss Johnson. He had seen the ribbons increase with the years and had decided that when infirmity at last forced the good woman to withdraw from the bank she would depart under full colour like an aged but fluttering May-pole. In spite of her little weaknesses Miss Johnson knew her business, or, better, Mr. Topper's business. She knew how to save him both time and trouble, and the more time and trouble she saved the more tolerant was Topper, the more he forgave the ribbons. As far as he was concerned Miss Johnson could have appeared in beads so long as she made up the difference with efficiency.

Mr. Topper's first letter was from a wholesale grocer in Texas, an old fellow on whom the bank had been making a decent profit for years. He was now in trouble. Things were bad. He wanted an extension of credit. As Mr. Topper read the letter he caught a mental picture of the old man laboriously writing it from an old-fashioned roll-top desk in Texas. Mental pictures are not good for banking. Mr. Topper was well aware of this, but the knowledge did not succeed in closing his eyes on the man's plight. Instead he opened them all the wider and dispatched a telegram designed to bring back the courage to a cornered customer thousands ofmiles away. It was not an outstanding stroke of business, but on this particular morning Mr. Topper relished it the more for that very reason.

Up to eleven o'clock Mr. Topper occupied himself with routine details, then he rose and informed the president that because of various considerations due to certain hitherto unknown maladies of both mind and body an extended vacation was highly essential. Should such an extension be withheld, Mr. Topper's physician would not be responsible for the consequences. Mr. Topper felt inclined to agree with the physician, a thing he seldom did. The extension was not withheld, although its cause was not fully believed. With an unnecessarily spiritless step Mr. Topper returned to his desk as if reluctant to leave it. Now that his vacation was assured he lingered over the parting. He had already set his affairs in order, but he diligently began to reset them now. He dallied with meaningless papers and dictated meaningless memoranda. There was a certain satisfaction in wasting the precious minutes in useless drudgery now that they were his to waste. In the back of his mind, however, danced colourful thoughts of golf stockings, caps and outing shoes, and other equipment necessary to his trip. Soon he would arise and purchase these things, going out into the street like a free man with a new consignment of golden days. For a moment he delayed, prolonging anticipation. In the middle of his fifth meaningless memo he was surprised by Miss Johnson's unusual behaviour.

Instead of gazing devoutly at her notes as was her invariable custom, her eyes had become disconcertingly jerky. For a moment they would remain fixed on the point of the pencil, then, as if drawn against their will by invisible wires, they would painfully lift and stare with a fascinated gaze directly over Mr. Topper's left shoulder. At the sound of Mr. Topper's voice they would struggle for a moment before they were able to descend once more to the pad. Mr. Topper was at first puzzled, then hurt and at last exasperated. Finally he could stand it no longer.

"What the devil's the matter, Miss Johnson?" he exclaimed.

"Look!" was all Miss Johnson said, pointing over his shoulder.

There was something in the tone of her voice that made Mr. Topper disinclined to look. In spite of himself he turned in his chair and followed the direction of her finger. He would have been more relieved had he seen a party of bank robbers quietly slaying the entire office force and looting the safe deposit vault. It would have seemed less personal, less fraught with complications. Yet what Mr. Topper saw would not have arrested the attention of the casual passer-by unless he had chanced to be especially interested in hat stands. This particular hat stand was situated in a corner near Mr. Topper's desk. On it were Mr. Topper's hat and cane, or rather, on it they should have been, but the terrible part of it was that they were not where they should have been. The canehad assumed an independent position and was standing unsupported on its own tip. The hat was rakishly poised above it about three feet in the air. As Mr. Topper turned, the hat and cane resumed their normal position as if afraid of being discovered out of place.

At this Miss Johnson gasped and once more uttered, "Look!"

Mr. Topper swung quickly back to his desk. He would look no more. Already he had seen too much.

"I wish, Miss Johnson," he said in a reproving voice, "I do wish you'd stop telling me to look. I see nothing and my time is valuable. What was I saying?"

Training came to Miss Johnson's aid. She dropped her eyes and studied her notes.

"You were saying," she said, "that, owing to your enforced absence, steps should be . . ."

"Ah, yes," interrupted Mr. Topper. "I was saying that."

His voice trailed away and he began to tap on the edge of his desk with the tip of a pencil. Now why had he been saying that, he wondered. Was it possible that the Kerbys had followed him to town? Marion had said that George occasionally ranged abroad, but he could hardly believe that Kerby would follow him to the bank. Miss Johnson's eyes were lifting again. Topper cleared his throat and hastily began to dictate.

"Owing to my enforced absence," he repeated, "I feel that it is important for certain steps to be..."

Unable to stand Miss Johnson's eyes he stopped dictating. What was happening behind him? At any moment the hat might thrust itself down over his eyes and make him appear ridiculous. The Kerbys were capable of such an outrage.

"Look now!" exclaimed Miss Johnson.

Mr. Topper turned quickly, and just in time to see his cane and hat retreating to the stand. He noticed with dread that this time they had ventured farther away from their appointed place.

"Oh," murmured Miss Johnson in an expiring voice. "Oh! " she repeated.

"Miss Johnson," said Mr. Topper with fatherly severity, "you must be ill, otherwise you would not be trying to upset me with your wild exclamations."

"Didn't you see anything?" asked Miss Johnson, studying Mr. Topper's face with troubled eyes. "Anything strange?"

"Nothing," lied Mr. Topper. "Nothing strange at all. Now let's try again."

"Then I must be very sick," replied Miss Johnson. "Sicker than I've ever been before."

"It will pass off," Mr. Topper assured her. "Pick up where I left off."

"Certain steps should be taken," began Miss Johnson. "You keep saying something about certain steps."

At this point Miss Johnson capitulated and seized Mr. Topper's hand. The hat stand was swaying from side to side and the cane was rattling against its post.

"I'm not as sick as that," she said with conviction. "If you don't see what I see you're the one that's sick."

"All right, all right," Mr. Topper called out, this time directly addressing the hat stand. "I'll finish up at once. Don't worry about that last memo, Miss Johnson. Go home and take a rest. Your nerves are upset. Stay home for a week or so. I won't be needing you for some time."

Mr. Topper got up briskly and swept some papers into a basket. The animated hat stand came to rest. Miss Johnson, her hands full of ribbons, was gazing at it with horror in her eyes.

"See, Miss Johnson," said Mr. Topper, walking over to the stand. "See, it's nothing after all. Only your nerves."

But before he could reach for his hat and cane these articles eagerly sprang from their pegs and presented themselves to his grasp. He snatched them from the air and turned to Miss Johnson.

"Nothing at all," he said with a forced smile. "It was purely your imagination."

For a moment they looked into each other's eyes. There was a prayer in Mr. Topper's. No missionary ever struggled more fervently to implant belief. Miss Johnson was regarding the hat and cane suspiciously, and Mr. Topper realised he had failed.

"Nothing at all," he repeated in a dead voice as he felt himself being gently pushed by some unseen force. "You can see for yourself, Miss Johnson. Go home and take rest. And if I were in your place I wouldn't speak with anyone. You might be misunderstood."

This last remark was tossed over his shoulder, for by this time Mr. Topper was being propelled with increasing rapidity across the floor. As he left the bank he looked like a man leaning against a strong wind.

"Not so fast," he muttered.

The doorman, thinking the remark intended for him, arrested the speed of the revolving doors.

"That's a queer way for a body to walk," he thought, peering after the slanting Topper. "Especially an officer at this time of day."

Previous ChapterContentsNext Chapter